Why Did Spirit Airlines Have so Many Cancelations Last Week?

Take a look inside the budget airline’s epic scheduling meltdown

Spirit And American Airlines Delays Extend To Fourth Day
Brandon Bell / Getty Images

Spirit Airlines is known for one big thing—cheap tickets. But, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for. Or, in the case of Spirit passengers last week, you don’t even get anything you paid for.

Since Sunday, Aug. 1, thousands of Spirit flights have been delayed or canceled, leaving passengers stranded across the U.S. and Central America for hours or even days. With up to 60 percent of Spirit’s daily flights canceled, some passengers, like this couple profiled by The Washington Post, paid hundreds of dollars out of pocket to find hotel stays and eventually book different transportation home. Needless to say, passengers are mad, even though Spirit’s schedule is finally stabilizing. 

So, what in the world happened?

While demand for air travel has shot up, airlines still haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels of operation, from flight schedules to the number of pilots and flight attendants on duty. So if one thing goes wrong—in this case, a series of delays and “operational challenges” that snowballed over the past month—chaos breaks loose. 

One of the primary reasons for Spirit’s calamity was staffing issues. When airlines face delays, whether weather-related or mechanical, they run into scheduling problems with crews. Pilots and flight attendants must have a certain amount of time off between flights, so delays can cause scheduling nightmares, and some flights need to be canceled due to a lack of available crew.

This summer has had a series of bad storms that have knocked out service at major airports across the country—that in itself isn’t unusual. However, thanks to the pandemic, staff and route shortages still affect the industry, leading to additional delays and cancelations.

“What started with weather and its associated delays led to more and more crew members getting dislocated and being unable to fly their assigned trips,” Spirit Airlines said in a statement. “Ultimately, the number of crews facing those issues outpaced the crew scheduling department’s capacity for getting them back in place.”

A second problem is Spirit's inability to rebook passengers with ease. According to Alex Miller, founder of UpgradedPoints.com, the business model that allows for Spirit to operate such cheap flights leave it particularly vulnerable to operational collapse. He points to the airline’s lack of a hub-and-spoke model, in which airlines fly from smaller cities to their hubs at bigger ones, as a major contributor to rebooking issues. “In addition, because they don’t codeshare or partner with other airlines, when there are operational issues, Spirit is forced to tackle this head-on and rebook passengers on their own aircraft, which can cause a lot of clogging,” Miller explained.

Unfortunately, this is not the first such meltdown to happen this year—American Airlines hit a wall back in June. And it probably won’t be the last. “Fluctuations of demand result in airlines putting out poor schedules and staffing. Unless the problem fully goes away, I think we’re going to see a lot of the same play out,” said Miller. “Spirit and American were the first, but Delta and United and other airlines have had their fair share of snafus over the years, and they’re not immune to this virus...no pun intended.”